Emma Viskic- And Fire Came Down

EMMA#The woman can only sign two words: help… family. And then she is gone – a body lying dead in the street. Caleb’s search for her killer takes him back to his hometown of Resurrection Bay. Centuries of racism have left it simmering with violent tensions, and this summer the bush is as dry as tinder. All it will take is one spark. He is determined to pursue justice at all costs. But everything he loves is in this town. And what if the truth means his world going up in flames?

Emma Viskic’s previous book, Resurrection Bay featuring private investigator Caleb Zelic was, without question, one of my top books last year, and have been (im)patiently waiting the next in the series. So, yes the time has come to review And Fire Came Down, and it’s a scorcher, no pun intended.

Once again, the real lynchpin of the book is the character of Caleb himself, reeling from the events of the previous book, and the emotional and professional loss it has wreaked on his life. Opening with a brief encounter with an unknown woman which results  in her death, Caleb realises that this encounter has been engineered to ensnare him in an investigation which proves challenging, dangerous, and perhaps more importantly draws him right back into the community of Resurrection Bay from his city life. Caleb’s character works well on several levels, due to the authenticity that Viskic brings to him and his voice. In my previous review, I dwelt on the nature of his deafness, and how Viskic paints such a true picture of the everyday difficulties and stress that his condition brings to his life. I’ve since read two books that have hearing impaired characters at the forefront, and still believe that Viskic has provided the truest representation of this particular character trait.

Another thing I love about his character is his sensitivity and innate morality, and the way that he switches between his emotional states. Here is a man that recognises his own weaknesses, and by extension the weaknesses of others, and carries with him a real sense of emotional intelligence, despite the constraints that his aural impairment places on him on reading others through words and gestures. He is also extremely self-deprecating, and has a sharp wit too. Although he is a perfectly competent and determined investigator, clear in his motivations to ferret out the truth, I like the way that Viskic adds this level of personal emotional weakness and confusion when it comes to dealing with those closest to him, most notably his estranged wife Kat, his fearsome mother-in-law, Maria, and his disgraced former partner, Frankie. Viskic’s portrayal of these three extremely strong women is also a significant point of interest in the book, not only for Caleb’s interactions with them, but also the characterisation of their contrasting natures and personal demons.

The premise of the investigation of the young woman’s death from the outset, leads Caleb into a whole heap of trouble, fuelled by the extreme racial tension in his hometown of Resurrection Bay. The varying reactions and attitude to the Koori people, an indigenous community in the town, is simmering to boiling point, and Caleb’s case leads him straight into the eye of the storm. Racial division is an all too widespread and vile aspect of life, I found this depiction particularly emotive, and was very affected by the sheer ignorance and hatred that certain individuals exhibit in the course of the story, and the violence that this gives rise too on the weaker members of the community. As emotive as this issue is, however, Viskic keeps her own authorial intervention firmly in check, achieving a balanced and objective view of the community tensions throughout, leading to an utterly compelling and thought provoking read. Once again, after my praise for Resurrection Bay, can highly recommend And Fire Came Down, and would urge you to discover this series for yourselves. Roll on book three Darkness For Light.

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARC)

 

 

Derek B. Miller- American By Day

She knew it was a weird place. She’d heard the stories, seen the movies, read the books. But now police Chief Inspector Sigrid Ødegård has to leave her native Norway and actually go there; to that land across the Atlantic where her missing brother is implicated in the mysterious death of a prominent African-American academic. America. And not someplace interesting, either: upstate New York.
It is election season, 2008, and Sigrid is plunged into a United States where race and identity, politics and promise, reverberate in every aspect of daily life.
To find her older brother, she needs the help of the local police who appear to have already made up their minds about the case. Working with – or, if necessary, against ― someone actually named Sheriff Irving ‘Irv’ Wylie, she must negotiate the local political minefields and navigate the back woods of the Adirondacks to uncover the truth before events escalate further…

Following the absolutely stunning Norwegian By Night which has been a stalwart recommend of mine as a bookseller, it was with some degree of excitement that I greeted the arrival of American By Day. Instead of keeping you in suspense as to my reaction to this book, I will quickly say that it has already claimed a position in my top reads of the year so far, and here’s why…

This book reunites us with Norwegian police chief inspector Sigrid Odegard, who finds herself on a journey, both professional and personal, to track down her missing brother in upstate New York. By marrying the disparate methods of beliefs and practice of law enforcement between Odegard and her American counterpart Sheriff Irving ‘Irv’ Wylie, Miller weaves his dialogue between them with emotional punch, feisty exchanges and differences of opinion, but never losing sight of the fact that they are both are fundamentally on the same side, albeit moulded and shaped by differing social influences. The verbal sparring, but growing mutual respect, is beautifully depicted, and the frisson of tension between them never feels contrived or clichéd as is all too common in crime fiction.

Odegard’s character in particular carries with it a weight of self doubt, constant self appraisal and moments of vulnerability that really resonate with the reader, and she is without doubt one of the most roundly drawn, authentic, and empathetic female characters that I have encountered of late. As she grapples with the gaps in language, cultural differences, and her growing fearfulness as to her brother’s fate, Miller effortlessly carries the reader on her journey of discovery and epiphany, engaging us completely as the story progresses. The dialogue throughout the book is beautifully controlled, infused with wit, gaps in understanding, and envelops the reader in the definition of the characters, their relationships, their emotions and how they perceive and seek to make sense of the world around them.

By aligning these protagonists from two entirely different cultures, Miller has afforded himself the opportunity to provide a mirror to the social and racial issues that plague American society both in the timeline of 2008, with the election looming, and perhaps more pertinently how these conflicts plague American life still. One review I read of this book made a sniffy comment about Miller’s didacticism, and yes, there is a strong sense of authorial comment pervading the book, which is inevitable in the time period, and with the social, racial and political issues the narrative gives rise to. However, I think any reader with a modicum of intelligence will have the gumption to embrace the author’s more cerebral observations, be they objective or subjective, and process this information for themselves. Personally, I had no problem with Miller’s exploration of the American psyche, the ever present issues of racial division, police brutality and so on, as I don’t believe that anyone can claim ignorance as to the existence of these divisive issues. Harking back to the quote from Karin Slaughter that crime fiction is the best medium to reflect the true ills and division of society, this is the lasting impression of this book for me. I found Miller’s juxtaposition of a compelling and emotive plot, with the exploration of race, violence, mental illness and social conflict a perfect blend, and his balance between the two streams of narrative are never less that completely absorbing.

I think it’s safe to say that a significant number of people that read, aside from the pure enjoyment of reading, do so to provide themselves with an enhanced comprehension of the world around them, and to encounter and experience people, places and cultural differences, and this is what Miller achieves here. American By Day is smarter than your average thriller, but containing all the essential components of good crime fiction that keep us reading and reading.  Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Doubleday for the ARC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog Tour- Thomas Mullen- Darktown

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Atlanta, 1948. In this city, all crime is black and white.

On one side of the tracks are the rich, white neighbourhoods; on the other, Darktown, the African-American area guarded by the city’s first black police force of only eight men. These cops are kept near-powerless by the authorities: they can’t arrest white suspects; they can’t drive a squad car; they must operate out of a dingy basement. When a poor black woman is killed in Darktown having been last seen in a car with a rich white man, no one seems to care except for Boggs and Smith, two black cops from vastly different backgrounds. Pressured from all sides, they will risk their jobs, the trust of their community and even their own lives to investigate her death. Their efforts bring them up against a brutal old-school cop, Dunlow, who has long run Darktown as his own turf – but Dunlow’s idealistic young partner, Rakestraw, is a young progressive who may be willing to make allies across colour lines . . .

For many years I’ve been recommending Thomas Mullen’s The Many Deaths of The Firefly Brothers as a great American novel set during the Depression era, with its compelling period detail and a couple of superb protagonists in the guise of notorious bank robbers Jason and Whit Fireson. On the strength of this, I was keen as mustard to read Mullen’s Darktown, set in the racially charged era of 1940’s Atlanta…

I will quite honestly say that I was held in Darktown’s thrall from start to finish, and felt genuinely engaged with the essence of the period, Mullen’s bold and engaging characterisation, and the compelling plotline which gravitated between claustrophobic tension and heartfelt emotion throughout. Being so firmly rooted within the conflict and racial tension of this period, the language and terms used completely reflect the era, and with our modern day sensibilities there is a slight uneasiness at the language used. However, being so much of its time, and as a testament to the weight of dignity he throws behind his maligned black characters, and the white protagonists, some sympathetic, some hostile, the rhythm, vernacular and cadence of the language used plays an essential role in the book. The depth of Mullen’s historical research shines through from the references to the inherently unjust limitations placed upon black citizens not only in their segregation from whites, but also the lack of legal redress available to them. This is mirrored in the very strict restrictions placed upon his black police officers, Boggs and Smith, as to how they conduct their police business, and the added layer of scrutiny and danger that they have to operate within. Likewise, the impunity that white police officers such as Dunlow operate under is sharply at odds with the black officer’s experience, and gives the crooked Dunlow a very long leash from which to pursue his corrupt ways.  Mullen traverses a significant amount of individual black and white experience across different realms of society throughout the book, from a lowly farmer to the higher echelons of political power, and with the distinctive backdrop of the racially and socially divided Atlanta as his backdrop, the depth and realism of his chosen period is perfectly integrated throughout.

The characterisation throughout the book is never less than perfect, with all of the main protagonists, as well as lesser characters having sharply drawn edges, and more importantly, being absolutely believable in their depiction, Consequently, such is the level of emotional engagement with them as a reader, you are completely drawn into their individual stories of bravery, certitude, honour or corruption throughout. Mullen depicts beautifully their moments of doubt, the battle to retain their moral centre when pushed to the limit by injustice and racism, or the depths of depravity that wearing a police badge or holding a position of power can reveal in those that society has deigned to be above all others. The moral integrity of both black officer, Boggs, and white officer Rakestraw, operating from both sides of the racial divide is explored throughout. It was extremely gratifying to see that although this is a book firmly rooted in the differences between black and white experience both figuratively and racially that Mullen avoids plummeting his characters into overly moralistic tropes. Instead he leaves area of grey where we witness as readers bad people doing bad things, and good people being driven to bad actions navigating their way through the tinderbox flashpoints that racial division stirs up, and can then draw our own conclusions on the veracity of their actions.

This is an intelligent, thoughtful and emotionally compelling read, peopled by a sublime cast of characters and a balanced and realistic portrayal of weighty issues, firmly located in the fascinating and tumultuous period of post war America. Cut through with moments of raw emotion, thought-provoking social observation, and never less than totally engrossing, Darktown is something really quite special indeed, and at times with its exploration of racial divide in America, made this reader ponder how far American society has really progressed when looking at these issues with a contemporary eye. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to  Little Brown for the ARC)

 

Catch up with or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

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Robert Bailey- Between Black and White

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In 1966 in Pulaski, Tennessee, Bocephus Haynes watched in horror as his father was brutally murdered by ten local members of the Ku Klux Klan. As an African American lawyer practicing in the birthplace of the Klan years later, Bo has spent his life pursuing justice in his father’s name. But when Andy Walton, the man believed to have led the lynch mob forty-five years earlier, ends up murdered in the same spot as Bo’s father, Bo becomes the prime suspect.

Retired law professor Tom McMurtrie, Bo’s former teacher and friend, is a year removed from returning to the courtroom. Now McMurtrie and his headstrong partner, Rick Drake, must defend Bo on charges of capital murder while hunting for Andy Walton’s true killer. In a courtroom clash that will put their reputations and lives at stake, can McMurtrie and Drake release Bo from a lifetime of despair? Or will justice remain hidden somewhere between black and white?

Prepare to immerse yourself in the tinderbox tension of racially divided Tennessee in Robert Bailey’s legal thriller Between Black and White, and what a thriller it is…

This is an incredibly character driven book from the accused and extremely empathetic Bocephus Haynes, to the small band of men dedicated to clearing his name. Haynes, having witnessed the death of his father at the hands of the KKK as a young child, has devoted his life to both the law, and to bringing his father’s killers to justice. What Bailey so ardently portrays within Haynes’ character is the toll this has wreaked on both his sense of self, and his relationship with those closest to him. He is a man of warring morality, with his strong belief in the due process of law, and yet the primal urge to dispense justice outside of it, having made physical threats to the now aged Andy Walton, the man he believes was instrumental in his father’s killing. Haynes rides a gamut of emotions throughout the books, bringing the reader with him, as he is essentially a good man but is he a killer too? Bailey carefully manipulates his character from the outspoken and strident avenger to a man placed firmly in the hands of his legal team whose endeavours on his behalf will ultimately decide his fate.

His retired law professor Tom McMurtrie, young lawyer Rick Drake, and ex-divorce lawyer, now drunkard, Ray Pickalew, make up the merry band fighting to clear Haynes’ name, going into battle against ballsy local prosecutor Helen Lewis. All four of these characters are incredibly well-drawn, and Haynes’ team in particular are put through a real emotional and physical wringer as the plot progresses. The ties that bind in terms of personal loyalty to Haynes are stretched and tightened by Bailey’s assured depiction of McMurtrie and Pickalew in particular, when surprising revelations come to the surface as the courtroom action comes to the forefront. The characterisation, and the interplay between these protagonists, hold the plot and pace extremely well throughout, and Bailey lines up a similar crew of dastardly and not-so dastardly surrounding cast perfectly placed to thwart or aid the defence of Haynes.

The setting of Pulaski, Tennessee adds another layer to the plot, being the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and a town steeped in racial tension, with a chequered and violent history. Bailey takes some interesting diversions along the way with his depiction of the town and its history that bolster the atmosphere of the book, but never to the detriment of the pace of the story. The courtroom itself instantly brought to mind shades of To Kill A Mockingbird, with its segregated layout, and the references to the social and legal history of Pulaski itself. Bailey’s measured use of his chosen location lifts and enhances his already assured plot further, and I found these interludes of potted history very interesting indeed, as we bear witness to not only the current events but those of forty five years previously. He also depicts very well the strata of power and influence within this community, again linked so closely to the history of the town, and the seemingly unassailable challenge that Haynes’ legal team are confronted with to bring those with local stature to justice.

I will confess that legal thrillers as a rule are not really a favourite genre of mine, but I do have a keen interest in the chequered racial history of the United States, so was drawn to Between Black and White for that reason. With Bailey’s own background as a lawyer adding a real authenticity to the plot, and his exemplary characterisation, the control of tension, and pitch perfect use of historical fact throughout, I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Thomas and Mercer for the ARC)